Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers opens like a performance-art stunt captured on crappy home video.
Three actors (two men and a woman) wearing grotesque aging make-up and thrift-store clothes wander an anonymous, unpeopled suburban landscape, mimicking sex with garbage cans. They clutch wine bottles, and between silly pranks (running a wheelchair through a carwash) and bouts of gleefully pointless destruction (axing console televisions in an abandoned house) they sink into stupefaction.
They don't talk much, but sometimes they sing or cackle -- emphasizing that for the film's whole 77 minutes, its sound runs slightly behind its picture. And they act just the same when they start encountering other humans, including a child in a dark suit whom they inspire to maul a baby doll, and a prostitute who sweetly sings them "Silent Night."
But a strange thing -- OK, a stranger thing -- happened about halfway into Trash Humpers. I started to care. Not about the characters, who remain largely inscrutable with their layers of latex and half-baked Appalachian accents. And not even really about whatever it is Korine is saying with techniques like his continuous use of alarming noises (firecrackers; stagey, high-pitched laughter) that alone are enough to drive household pets insane at 500 feet.
Rather, I started to care about why I was reacting as I did. Why did it get under my skin that I couldn't see the actors' skins? What was so eerie about the woman trilling the Carter Family ditty "Single Girl" (a new mother's lament of freedoms lost) while cradling a doll shrouded in clear plastic? Why, when the film's plotless series of encounters begin concluding in violent deaths, was I irrationally anxious that these staged scenarios comprised a real snuff film?
Korine might have a "message"; it might even be the one about modern alienation that's delivered to the unnamed protagonists by a cross-dressing poet who, prancing about a parking-lot roof, seems to explain the film's title. Indeed, such territory has long been trodden by the Kids screenwriter and avant-maverick maker of Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy.
Or perhaps the artist behind 2007's Mister Lonely -- about a commune for celebrity impersonators -- is concerned with role-playing, and the weird sensation of watching actors liberated into depravity by clumsy masks they never remove.
All that, sure. But Trash Humpers is also about the almost shocking compositional beauty Korine sometimes achieves with lo-fi gear in mundane places. It's about the chilling moment when you realize what that bit of trash laying in an overgrown field really is. And it's about the ineffable oddness when the tune of the cold-blooded folk song a character sings as the camera pans across that field re-emerges repeatedly -- and when finally, with no more explanation than in a dream, the song becomes a lullaby for a dead fake baby that's now a real live one.
Assuming you can sit through it, you won't soon see anything else like Trash Humpers.
Fri., Aug. 13-Sun., Aug. 15 Melwood